National Security Network

A Progressive Counterterrorism Approach Keeps America Safe

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Report 11 March 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Guantanamo Bay Torture


Yesterday, a number of senior counterterrorism officials and experts testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. efforts to combat extremism.  Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, stated that the "primary goal of countering violent extremism is to stop those most at risk of radicalization from becoming terrorists."  National security experts agree that a strategic and farsighted counterterrorism policy takes the fight to terrorists globally and gets results through military, intelligence and law-enforcement means. 

This strategy avoids giving terrorists the warrior status they crave; bans torture and mistreatment which produced recruits and blocked cooperation with allies; and closes the potent symbol of Guantanamo Bay.  It uses America's vaunted legal system as a potent weapon.  And it is paying off:  recent cases have shown the FBI getting cooperation and actionable intelligence through civilian courts, handing the military leads to pursue globally and combating the immediate threats from extremism.  Yet, the right wing has responded by launching attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the prison system and the foundations of the American judicial system.  While these attacks have received criticism from both sides of the aisle, radical conservatives continue to marginalize themselves by advocating policies that are damaging to America's near term and long term security. 

Prevention of radicalization and countering al Qaeda's narrative are key to a strategic counterterrorism approach. Yesterday, Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.  He stated, "Curtailing the influence of militants is critical to enhancing our nation's security. The primary goal of countering violent extremism is to stop those most at risk of radicalization from becoming terrorists."  Ambassador Benjamin went on to say that, "Successfully combating terrorism necessitates isolating violent extremists from the people they pretend to serve...So as we look at the problem of transnational terrorism, we are putting at the core of our actions a recognition of the phenomenon of radicalization - that is, we are asking ourselves time and again: Are our words and actions strengthening or diminishing the appeal of arguments used by al-Qa'ida to justify violence against the United States and its allies? What more do we need to do to blunt the appeal of this brand of extremism?  Answering these questions is at the heart of any genuinely strategic approach to counterterrorism, because ultimately undermining the appeal of al Qa'ida's rationale for violence is essential to help make environments ‘nonpermissive' for terrorists seeking to exploit them."

Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who successfully hunted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, recently wrote in the National Interest that the use of torture or advanced interrogation techniques, advocated by some conservatives, "are alienating our best strategic weapon for winning hearts and minds: moderate Muslims." Saying that "shortsighted policies place the priority on stopping the next terrorist attack (which is impossible; there has been a terrorist attack on the watch of every U.S. president for the past two decades). A proper counterterrorism strategy would make the denial of new recruits into the ranks of al-Qaeda its primary focus."

Key elements of a farsighted approach to terrorism include:

Not creating terrorists by using torture.  About the use of "advanced interrogation techniques" General David Petreaus said, "I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside...   Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables.  They don't go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility.  " [David Petraeus, Meet the Press, 2/21/10]

Not glorifying terrorists as warriors with military commissions. General Paul Eaton, NSN's Senior Advisor, recently told the Washington Independent that "Putting a military face on the American judicial system is counterproductive for our image abroad." About the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Eaton said, "This guy is a criminal, he is not a combatant. He is a murderer. He is not a combatant." [Paul Eaton, Washington Independent, 3/5/10]

Not providing terrorists the recruitment tool of Guantanamo.  Jon Soltz, the director of, along with 2,000 other combat veterans, wrote in a letter that: "Every day that the facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open and detainees are held there without trial is another day that terror networks have an effective recruiting poster." [New York Times, 1/21/10]

[Daniel Benjamin, 3/10/10. Matthew Alexander, National Interest, 3/08/10]

A smarter, more sustainable approach has proven to be successful in combating immediate threats and bringing terrorists to justice.  Concrete examples from the past weeks, months, and years have demonstrated that a counterterrorism policy rooted in the rule of law is a powerful weapon in combating the immediate threats from extremists and bringing terrorists to justice, as demonstrated by the following cases:

Najibullah Zazi Case.  Not only did Najibullah Zazi -who was processed through America's criminal justice system -confess to his crimes, but the Washington Post reports that he is "share[ing] information about confederates overseas."  And the Washington Post goes on to report that certain tools for gaining intelligence and cooperation were open to officials because they went through the criminal justice system, and would not otherwise be available: "Law enforcement sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said Zazi began to accelerate his cooperation after authorities charged his Afghan-born father with crimes and threatened to charge his mother with immigration offenses -- options that are not available in the military justice system."  [Washington Post, 2/23/10.  NY Times, 2/22/10. Washington Independent, 2/23/10]

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab Case.  Much to the dismay of conservative critics who dismiss the facts of the Underwear Bomber case, Abdulmutallab has in fact been cooperating with law enforcement officials, who have been gathering vital intelligence from the interrogation.  Michael Isikoff writes "Officials say Abdulmutallab began cooperating about his contacts with Al Qaeda in Yemen after the FBI reached out to two members of his family in Nigeria-one of them his mother-and brought them to Detroit to persuade the suspect to begin cooperating."  And Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress writes,  "The intelligence gained from Abdulmutallab has been shared widely throughout the intelligence community - and has already produced results. On January 21, Malaysian counterterrorism authorities arrested 10 suspected terrorists tied to Abdulmutallab. The suspected cell was made up of mostly non-Malaysians including two Nigerians who were thought to be part of an international terrorist network."  [Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, 2/22/10. Ken Gude, Think Progress, 5/3/10]

David Coleman Headley Case.  Headley was arrested in Chicago last fall, a "Chicago resident who had contacts with a high level Al Qaeda linked figure in Pakistan and conducted scouting runs for the November, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India."  Headley has cooperated with the FBI, and Michael Isikoff reported that "Indian investigators have traveled to Chicago to learn what Headley has been saying as part of their continued investigation into the Mumbai attacks." [Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, 2/22/10]

Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. FBI Interrogator Ali Soufan "was the agent who first interrogated Abu Zubaydah, the man now famous for being waterboarded 83 times. Zubaydah had been badly wounded in the struggle to capture him and was almost immediately taken to a hospital. It was there that Soufan began his interrogation, and gained ‘important, actionable intelligence' within the first hour regarding the role Khalid Sheikh Mohammed played in the 9-11 attacks. Committee Chair Sheldon Whitehouse called this ‘one of the more significant pieces of intelligence information we've ever obtained in the war on terror,'" writes Newsweek.  This important intelligence was gained by an FBI agent through traditional interrogation means. [Newsweek, 5/13/09]

Radical conservatives marginalize themselves advocating policies that are damaging both in near and far term.   Despite the evidence and testimony of experts, conservatives continue to criticize a progressive counterterrorism approach, launching attacks against American security institutions.  Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol's neoconservative organization Keep America Safe attacked the concept of rule of law, with the recent release of a video suggesting lawyers who represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay are complicit in terrorism. This radical video was met with a vociferous response from mainstream conservatives.  Last week, a group of conservative lawyers and Bush administration officials released a statement rebuking the video's ridiculous claims, calling it a "shameful series of attacks." Bush administration Solicitor General Ted Olson also spoke out against the video, saying the attorneys were acting in the "finest tradition of the profession."  And Bush administration Attorney General wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Why You Shouldn't Judge A Lawyer by His Clients," calling such moves as the Keep America Safe video "both shoddy and dangerous."

Yet some radical conservatives continue to defend such ridiculous accusations.  Former Bush White House speechwriter Marc Theissen recently asked "Do other lawyers in question hold similarly radical and dangerous views?" And when asked by the Daily Show host Jon Stewart "If you represent a pedophile, are you then saying I'm sympathetic to pedophiles?" Theissen responded, "If you have a limited amount of pro-bono time and you spend all your time representing pedophiles, it would raise a question."  [Politico, 3/8/10. Michael Mukasey, 3/8/10. Marc Thiessen 2/9/10. Marc Thiessen, the Daily Show, 3/9/10]

What We're Reading

Early results in Iraq's election show Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's party with a plurality of votes, setting the stage for weeks of horse-trading amongst the country's fractious political parties. And with the first results came the first accusations, by a coalition of Shiite parties, of irregularities on voting and counting.

Vice President Joe Biden told Palestinians on Wednesday that the United States intends to push ahead with its Mideast peacemaking effort, despite a diplomatic blow-up this week over Israel's plans to build 1,600 housing units in disputed East Jerusalem.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called Wednesday for early and substantive political negotiations between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban and other insurgent groups, saying that military successes will never be enough to end the war.

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell says it is no longer selling gasoline to Iran, the latest in a growing number of oil firms to halt supplies to the Islamic Republic.

Officials say the Defense Department is planning to move away from its previous doctrine of being prepared to fight two wars simultaneously in favor of plans to "succeed in a wide range of contingencies."

The coming week of direct talks between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebel groups in Doha will be crucial to the prospects of a lasting peace deal, the U.S. envoy for Sudan said.

Haitian President René Préval pleaded Wednesday for U.S. help plugging a multimillion-dollar budget gap caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake but said he got a cool reception from congressional leaders wary of handing over cash.

The State Department has called the recent Burmese election law, which would bar democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating, a "mockery of the democratic process."

Most international travel was halted and public services thrown into disarray as thousands of Greek workers protesting austerity measures staged a general strike.

Mexican telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim is now the richest man in the world; his $53.5 billion fortune surpasses those of both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Commentary of the Day

David Abshire, a former ambassador to NATO and co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says a NATO renewal will require European courage on Afghanistan.

Uri Dromi, spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992 to 1996, argues that continuing to expand settlements will ultimately lead to the loss of the Jewish state.

Deborah Amos writes about the life of Iraqi exiles forced into prostitution by a lack of jobs.